The New York Islanders look like a completely different team than they were early in the season. During the club’s five-game losing streak, they seem to have lost their way and forgotten the basic things that made them successful during their surprising 4-1-2 start. Here is a look at five factors that have hurt the Islanders during the last five games:
1. Team defense: The Islanders played much better team defense early in the season. The forwards backchecked regularly and the defensemen were positionally sound. During the losing streak, and the last two games in particular, the team defense has been horrible. Opposing players have been left all alone in the Isles zone and open in the slot. Even a mediocre team like Carolina was able to take advantage of it to the tune of seven goals.
The players know the problem exists. Defenseman Mike Mottau admitted after the Carolina game.
“They [the Hurricanes] have pretty good speed, put pucks towards the net and caused a lot of traffic in front,” Mottau said. “While they did a good job offensively, we needed to tighten up defensively, close gaps and not give them as much time and space.”
Coach Scott Gordon was particularly upset about the lack of backchecking the Isles have shown, particularly in the last two losses to Philadelphia and Carolina which they lost by a combined 13-3 score.
“The biggest thing that I’m disappointed with is that we should have had a pretty good learning experience in that Montreal game on the back check,” Gordon said. “I’ve addressed it with several players in different instances and now it’s more than addressing it. We’ll address it by playing time. It’s gotten to the point now where we can’t allow ourselves to lose games for the wrong reasons.”
2. Goaltending: The goaltending has not been stellar during the losing streak, especially Rick DiPietro. DP looks like a goalie who has hardly played in two seasons. He has been allowing a lot of fat rebounds and has often been down and out of position at key times. It is clearly not all Ricky’s fault (see problem number one, team defense), but the difference between DiPietro and Dwayne Roloson has been stark. DP has a 4.21 GAA and a .850 save percentage. Roloson has a respectable 2.40 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
Because of his age and his contract, the Isles have to commit to DiPietro long term, but right now, he is not helping the team stay competitive in games while he works out the rust. The Islanders cannot wait too much longer for him to round back into form or the season will be lost before it begins.
3. Special Teams: The Islander power play has struggled at times during the slump, especially during the last three games when they are 1-for-15. The one goal came in the Carolina game after the Islanders were already hopelessly behind. When the team was winning, the power play ranked near the top of the league. The penalty kill has also struggled. The club has allowed at least one power play goal in each of the last three games.
The Isles power play has generated some chances, but there needs to be a bit more movement without the puck. It’s not just numbers that are important here but when goals are and aren’t scored. The Isles have failed to convert some key 5-on-3 chances that could have changed the outcome games.
4. Offense: Last year, the Isles struggled to score goals over the course of the season and ranked in the bottom third of the league in goals scored. During their strong start to the season, the Isles scored nearly 3.3 goals per game. During the five-game losing streak, that number has dropped to 2.0 goals per contest. At times during the slump, the Islanders have tried to make pretty or perfect passes rather than going to the net and paying the price needed to score “dirty goals.”
Gordon has emphasized that his team doesn’t have players like Marian Gaborik who is a threat to score a highlight reel goal every time he touches the puck. They need to work hard, get to the front of the net and score. Unless they start doing this again, goals will remain hard to come by.
5. Injuries: Yes, every team has them but the Islanders have been hit especially hard by them early this year. Remember that their top defenseman (Mark Streit) and one of their top three forwards (Kyle Okposo) have yet to play a game this season. John Tavares missed time due to a concussion and Josh Bailey due to a hip injury. Rob Schremp just played his first game against Carolina while players like Trent Hunter and Michael Grabner have missed games due to nagging injuries.
On defense, James Wisniewski was suspended for two games while Milan Jurcina and Andrew MacDonald have also missed time. This not only leaves the team without some of its better players, but it prevents players from getting comfortable with their linemates and their roles in the system. While they are a factor, every team has to deal with injuries and Isles must find a way to overcome them.
The Islanders fast start was not an illusion. This team is deeper and more talented than it has been in recent years. A young team like the Islanders is bound to have some slumps over the course of the season. The challenge facing Gordon and his players is how they react to the dry spell and how quickly they can make adjustments to get out of it.